Quebec Seeks to Ease Divisiveness

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun Apr 13 21:52:11 UTC 2003

New York Times, April 13, 2003

		Quebec Seeks to Ease Divisiveness


      MONTREAL, April 12 The ache that clutches at the heart of Quebec,
and arguably at the heart of all of Canada, is gradually easing. The ache
is the long, uneasy relationship between English speakers and French
speakers in this otherwise congenial city rich in cafe romance and
cultural life. It has played out over the last 40 years in a series of
turbulent provincial elections, referendums over separation with Canada
and marches over laws that dictate when and how French or English may be
used. The wounds are deep, going back to the mid-18th century, when the
British seized the province from the French by force of arms and they may
never be totally healed. But as voters prepare to go to the polls on
Monday to choose a provincial assembly and premier, newspaper columnists
and academics are marveling at the fact that this is the first vote in two
generations that will not center on the issue of sovereignty.

The separatist Parti Qubcois may still eke out a majority of seats in the
assembly, but the current premier, Bernard Landry, has refused to promise
to hold the province's third referendum on separation if he wins. Any
other strategy would have meant writing off greater Montreal, where 45
percent of Quebec's 7.2 million people and the vast majority of Quebec's
920,000 remaining English-speakers live. That would have assured that he
would lose the vote. Mr. Landry was falling behind in the polls this week
against Jean Charest, the Liberal leader, who is a dedicated federalist.
"There is a growing allergy to divisive rhetoric that is clearly related
to the breaking down of barriers," said Jack Jedwab, executive director of
the Association for Canadian Studies, a Montreal-based research

Health care, taxes and economic issues have trumped independence in this
campaign as a growing number of both French-speaking and English-speaking
voters are seeking and finding a bicultural, bilingual accommodation. The
reduced tensions evolved over time, but the process was helped along by
flight of a large number of angry and fearful English-speaking Quebecers
to Ontario and the United States in the 1970's and 1980's as the
separatists pressed their case. The departure of so many English speakers
caused a demographic shift that damaged business confidence and the
economy for decades, but it forced those who stayed behind to adjust their
attitudes and learn better French.

"What used to drive politics in Quebec was the Francophone majority's fear
of assimilation into the English-speaking mainstream of Canada," said
Benoit Aubin, who learned English listening to Bob Dylan records and is
now the Montreal correspondent for Maclean's magazine. "But as soon as
English speakers learned French the problem was gone. Being bilingual
became cool." A wave of new immigration also helped bridge the gulf. The
newcomers from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia some English-speaking and
some French-speaking broke language barriers when they moved willy-nilly
into both predominantly French-speaking and English-speaking

The French-speaking Quebecers who thought they were treated as
second-class citizens by the old English-speaking Montreal elite are
feeling less aggrieved now that a series of laws enacted by Liberal and
Parti Qubcois governments have fortified the use of the French language
and Qubcois culture. "There's still a gulf, but there's more of a gray
zone between the two solitudes," said Antonia Maioni, director of McGill
University's Institute for the Study of Canada, referring to Hugh
MacLennan's 1945 novel "Two Solitudes," one of many that have probed
Montreal's historic divide.

Although the Parti Qubcois has failed to create an independent country, as
it had hoped, it succeeded in alleviating many of the old wounds that
created the nationalistic urge that kindled its emergence. "Now that we
have saved the culture, we don't need independence," said Pierre Bourque,
a former Montreal mayor and a former separatist who is now campaigning in
French, English and Spanish for a seat in the assembly from east Montreal
on a platform that promises to put off more referendums indefinitely.

The growing acceptance by English speakers of laws that protect the
supremacy of French has helped make peace. The language laws, installed in
the 1970's, were originally hotly contested by English-speakers and many
new immigrants. The laws made French the official provincial language.
They also required teaching in French for most new immigrants and required
businesses to use French on their primary signs.

The laws were softened in the courts, though, and were eventually seen by
many English speakers as a small price to pay for social peace. In a
recent study by the Missisquoi Institute in Montreal, 50 percent of
English-speakers surveyed said the provincial government should maintain
the language laws, though older English-speakers still expressed

The signs of adaptation are everywhere in this city. Once a city that
spoke English west of St. Lawrence Boulevard and French east of Boulevard
St. Laurent, Montreal is increasingly becoming a city of linguistically
mixed neighborhoods. The mlange includes not only English and French but
also a dozen or so immigrant languages. Conversations go back and forth in
English and French from the traditional French cafes on Rue St. Denis to
Schwartz's delicatessen on St. Laurent. With one-third of Quebec's native
English speakers now marrying French speakers, romance is increasingly
becoming bilingual.

"More and more French men are writing their love cards in English," said
Teresa Jedrezejak, a Polish immigrant who owns a flower shop in Notre Dame
de Grace, a once thoroughly English-speaking neighborhood on the west side
that is becoming increasingly mixed. More French-speaking students are
enrolling at McGill University and writing their papers in French and
English-speaking students are enrolling in large numbers at the University
of Montreal and writing their papers in English.  Employees of department
stores and bars that once were considered the domain of the English elite
now welcome all customers with "Bonjour."

The Montreal Gazette, the English-language daily, began in September to
advertise in the French-language news outlets and promote itself on
billboards in French. Articles written in French will appear in the paper
by the end of the year. Ms. Maioni of McGill University is one of a new
breed of Montrealers who over time may change Quebec politics forever.

The daughter of English-speaking Italian immigrants, she attended a French
university in Quebec City to become completely bilingual and there met a
French-speaking aspiring political scientist, whom she married. They went
to graduate school in the United States, and now have 4-year-old triplets
who speak French as their first language but can speak to their maternal
grandmother in English or Italian. "My children watch PBS Kids as easily
as TeleQuebec," she said. "And I can live in English or French."

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